“The first casualty when war comes is the truth.” – U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson, 1918
America’s Civil War was, by any measure, horrific. Fought from 1861-1865, it cost the lives of 750,000 soldiers, to say nothing of civilian casualties. Wikipedia quotes one source to the effect that this amounted to 10% of all Northern males 20-45 years old, and 30% of all Southern white males aged 18-40. Perhaps another 400,000 were wounded. The sitting U.S. president was assassinated. Although the price of war was high, it brought an end to slavery and preserved the Union.
This is the stuff of which sesquicentennial observances are made, and in the period 2011-2015 we’re now going through a succession of 150-year memorials to each of the events and the people of that era in turn. After all those years we’re also continuing to work through the wide range of inequalities, hatreds, bitterness, and other dysfunction that the war left unresolved or, in some instances, fomented. So, these days, the American Civil War weighs on our collective minds.
A look at news coverage of current events leads one to wonder whether we might not be experiencing another Civil War today… not a war fought with guns and bayonets, cannon and ironclad ships, where friends and enemies can be identified by Union blue or butternut grey, or trace of an accent… but rather a virtual civil war… a war of words, using 21st-century weapons of social media. Through blogs and tweets, and through powerful Internet search capabilities, we’ve learned how to fire words at one another at ever-higher rates, much like the famous Gatling gun, invented in 1861 and first used in the Civil War, increased the firepower of the Union Army.
The 21st-century civil war rages on many fronts… jobs, immigration, healthcare, education, the social safety net, free-market economic failures, government spending, the appointments of judges, U.S. foreign policy (with separate skirmishes fought over Israel, Palestine, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries across the Middle East, as well trade with China), and more.
Environmental issues… notably climate change… form another battleground of this war. The call is always to choose sides, and take up arms.
All this had been vaguely going around in my mind, when I woke up this morning to find out I was not alone (in a world with seven billion people, you and I never are). Katherine Bagley, a reporter for InsideClimate News, gave this some focus in a piece picked up by Andy Revkin. You can find his post and links to her work here. Some snippets:
The Climate Reality Project, a group overseen by Al Gore, is trying to win over public opinion by getting people to spread accurate global warming science in the comment sections of news stories online, where the battle rages with particular ferocity.
For example, a recent CNN article titled “Global Warming Is Epic, Long-Term Study Says” [link] attracted nearly 12,600 comments. That’s more than 50 times what articles published the same day on technology and environmental health received…
…An algorithm on the site generates a list of articles that have become overrun by skeptics or that contain misinformation. Scientific facts are displayed next to the articles, which people can cut and paste and “drop” into reader comments or social media accounts.
Mr. Revkin had this to add:
My comment section is full of debate every day and, absolutely, posts on climate are like fresh meat dumped on the Serengeti. As you may know I’ve tried various ways to moderate the comments literally….
The rudeness ebbs and builds; sometimes I smack it down by rejecting comments at a heavier pace or yelling like a teacher at unruly students. It really feels like a classroom that way sometimes. Take a random walk through this busy string (272 comments, so just dip in) to get the idea.
Whether history will see the stakes as high as those of that early Civil War, or the positive gains of the current period as worth the cost, only time will tell. But it’s hard to escape feeling that we’re often using our words to hurt, to inflict pain… to do damage to psyches and reputations… as much or more as to resolve issues. We’re engaging in war and we can expect that years of such warfare will take their toll on our Nation, no less than that first war did. Because the warfare is virtual, it’s hard to tally casualties. But surely we see many people walking around with signs of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) just from the tensions of 21st-century living… symptoms that people from that earlier era labeled as battle fatigue. The future costs to our country could well be enormous.
Thanks to Senator Johnson, we’ve identified the first casualty.
The times and this virtual warfare call, not for yesterday’s Gatling guns or today’s nuclear options, but for conscientious objectors.